"A demented serial killer is kidnapping young women and tying them to a chair in front of a webcam. He challenges the police to games of Internet Poker - if the police win, the girls go free ... lose, the police are forced to watch him torture them live on the internet. Heading up the investigation is Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca), but when a British girl is killed, tough Irish policeman John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) is sent over to assist."
To say that Dario Argento is no longer the enfant-terrible of Italian cult cinema would be something of an understatement. After a return to form with his old school giallo, NON HO SONNO (2001), he was due to continue in the black gloved vein with another thriller, DARK SUNGLASSES. However, this project fell through and he took up this, the ‘techno’ thriller, THE CARD PLAYER.
It starts off fairly intriguingly: Anna (Stefania Rocca), a hard nosed detective on the Rome Missing Persons Department receives a mysterious, taunting email from a someone who calls themselves The Card Player. Attached to the email is a photograph of a female British tourist – who has recently gone missing; her life, the message makes clear, can only be saved by a game of on-line poker (and for every turn that’s lost, he makes clear that he will amputate part of her). Realising the card player isn’t playing games (well he is, but you know what I mean), Anna rushes to her boss (Adalberto Maria Merli) – “If We don’t play he’ll kill her; if he wins he’ll kill her – if we win he will let her go!”. When they hook up to the on-line game they see two decks of cards on the computer screen, and a webcam showing the face of the kidnapped girl. However, thinking that he’s bluffing the police chief instructs Anna to do nothing, “We can’t give credence to every madman that comes along!”, he reasons. Unfortunately, that appears to be a bad call: the card player notes that time has run out and cuts the girl’s throat with a box cutter as the horrified police watch.
Due to the failure of the Rome police to protect the British tourist, a brash British policeman (well, an Irishman, actually), John (Liam Cunningham), is sent over to investigate her murder – which ruffles quite a few feathers amongst the Roma constabulary (although Anna immediately takes something of a shine to him).
It turns out that John knows his way round a morgue, so, after negotiating with a tap dancing pathologist, he and Anna examine the dead girl. Intriguingly, they discover that the killer has inserted a joker card in the girl’s vagina – and John also finds a large plant seed inserted into one of her nostrils.
However, when another woman is snatched from the streets of Rome – and Anna is asked for a rematch by the Card Player – they realise that the poker madness isn’t just a one off, and they have a bone-fide serial killer on their hands. This time they decide they have to play …
I'm feeling charitable, so at least I can say that THE CARD PLAYER isn't Argento's worst movie (it’s pipped to the post by his jaw droppingly bad adaptation of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998)). However, as bad as PHANTOM is (and it is bad), at least it had Argento’s flamboyance to spare (in buckets) (and some – me among them – suggest that PHANTOM is actually a comedy – funny it certainly is). Now, when you say Argento to anyone in the know, they know what they are in for: bravura set pieces; baroque menace; style to spare; and a dangerous streak, where things teeter dangerous close to the gloriously perverse (and sometimes tip right over the edge). So, why with THE CARD PLAYER are we stuck with the routine; the depressingly mundane?
Some astute critics have compared THE CARD PLAYER to a TV movie – and who am I to argue? It is easily the flattest Argento movie. Admittedly, some of this is intentional: it’s clear that the old master is attempting to make a ‘realist’ thriller: gone are the crumbling piles of old Rome; the cobwebs and the faded gothic glamour – in are the pastel shades and humdrum reality of everyday modern Italy. This isn’t so much of a problem, really, what is is Argento’s attempt at a contemporary thriller: trying to wrap his story in what he thinks is the techno babble of today is akin to seeing your Grand Dad break dancing at a family wedding disco. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. I don’t think that Argento needs to shackle himself to the past, but, where before he emerged some of his stories in futuristic (and deliriously unlikely) sci-fi improbabilities, here he’s playing with clichés: the internet is so Sandra Bullock; and that thing with the seeds found on the corpses would be great, if it hadn’t been pummeled to death already in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). Curiously, though, the film’s would be slam-bam finale, where Argento mixes today’s technology with a jeopardy that even Penelope Pitstop would baulk at as old fashioned, hints that maybe the old card is in on the joke after all.
However, this is the least of the film’s problems. Whilst Stefania Rocca and Liam Cunningham both give reasonably effective performances, their good work is roundly undone by yet another rash of bad acting by most of the rest of the cast (it doesn’t even seem we can blame the dubbing this time as by all accounts the movie was shot in English). OK, I’m done with defending this kind of thing in Italian cult cinema – it was excusable in 1976 (and, arguably, it doesn’t detract from what are already great movies – and adds to the charm of many) – but, hell, it’s 2004 for crying out loud! Surely Argento has people around him; he can’t be unaware that people are laughing at his dialogue. Who can hear someone badly spout, “The god damn piece of shit!” and keep a straight face? Not me, that’s for sure – and it sure as hell jeopardises his work being taken seriously again outside of Italy and fan circles.
Of course, being an Argento movie it can’t be a total waste of time. There are, admittedly a couple of nice touches: like the dead corpse spitting water at an investigating detective, and a reasonably exciting scene where Anna realises the killer has invited himself over to her apartment. Also, whilst he missed the opportunity to once again terrorize his daughter Asia (she was originally earmarked for Anna’s character, until she was tempted by the bright lights of Hollywood), Argento ropes in his other daughter, Fiorre (who previously met the chop in PHENOMENA (1985)) as a potential victim of the Card Player. Making sure his seemingly sadistic family tendencies (at least on screen) remain a constant. However, whilst many of the tried and trusted giallo clichés are in place (a foreigner abroad investigating a crime; something that seemed mundane initially proving to be a valuable clue later on; the killer’s face appearing somewhere unlikely) these seem like mere echoes of previously innovative work. Whilst NON HO SONNO was also a return to past glories, whatever shortcomings that movie had were more than made up for by generous dollops of grue and an outrageously eccentric storyline. Unfortunately, THE CARD PLAYER is as dry as a bone (ignore the rating on the cover, the UK DVD is rated just a ‘15’). Obviously, gore does not a good movie make – but it sure livens up a dull one. What we’re left with are Sergio Stivaletti's variable corpse makeups and (mostly) offscreen murders.
We all know that Argento is capable of better than this. I regard myself as a fan of his, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t criticise his very workmanlike work here. With THE CARD PLAYER, the one time maverick is treading water. I hope he can drag himself back from the precipice of mediocrity, otherwise I genuinely worry that his upcoming finale of the Thee Mothers trilogy (SUSPIRIA (1976) and INFERNO (1980) are two of my favourite movies) will be more akin to an episode of CHARMED than the supernatural masterpiece it should be.
On the evidence of THE CARD PLAYER it might be time for Argento to hang up the black gloves. I hope he can prove me wrong.
female:4 / male:3
1) Female's throat slit with a box cutter
2) Female's throat slit with a box cutter
3) Female slashed to death with a box cutter
4) Female shot twice
5) Male has hook pushed through neck
6) Male impaled on spikes
6) Male run over by train